Performer, TV actor and award-winning theatre creator, Emma Frankland, has focussed her energies on discussing gender and identity. Her latest work, Hearty, asks questions about how trans experiences are framed. Now it comes to the Marlborough Theatre, as part of Trans Pride. As a locally-based artist, she’s delighted there’s an established season dedicated to the work of trans performers. “That’s ground-breaking,” she tells me. “The Marlborough is the UK’s only all-year-round LGBTQ theatre venue and the support they give to trans artists sets such a great example. It allows me as an artist to push further in my work, rather than always feeling the work needs to also explain what being trans means.”
Hearty stands as the final work in her None of Us is Yet a Robot project. Over the last seven years, this has explored change, gender and the politics of transition, creating ground-breaking performances and workshops for the trans community in locations as diverse as Brazil,
Indonesia and the UK. Travelling with her six-year-old in Indonesia last January, Frankland spent several weeks living with Bissu shamans. “Bissu comes from the trans community, so it was incredible to see them valued amongst their society.” This followed a previous trip where she worked with trans women in Jakarta and Yogjakarta. “I have also spent time with trans and travesti women in Brazil at the brilliant SSEX BBOX conference and with 2Spirit and trans women in Canada. All of these experiences have made me realise how connected this experience is, despite our immense cultural differences and privileges” Conversations with all of these individuals aided her in creating Hearty’s unapologetic commentary on what it means to be a trans woman in 2019.
Visually it’s a striking show. Frankland wears a long prosthetic rat tail and metal wings constructed from knives, as well as a slogan T-shirt that is an appropriation of one of Germaine Greer’s trans-exclusionary hate speeches. “It also continues my exploration of the troubled history of HRT and it’s use in the liberation of trans bodies as well as contributing to the eradication of the crone in our culture. It uses ritual, fire and song to draw all these elements together!” Also drawing on Frankland’s work and observations on a shifting social landscape, last month saw the publication of None of Us is Yet a Robot, Five Performances on Gender Identity and the Politics of Transition. Spanning those seven years and five innovative performances, alongside a collection of writings, it charts trans experience in modern Britain.
This culmination of Frankland’s current oeuvre comes at a time when trans-narratives are increasingly assimilated and diluted by cisgender productions, which in turn establishes unhelpful stereotypes. “I don’t doubt that many productions feel they are being supportive, but if you don’t have trans people playing significant roles on your production team you shouldn’t be making that work. And I definitely want an end to cis actors portraying trans people, it’s unhelpful and needs to stop.” Away from mainstream media, the internet and social media have radically improved the ways in which queer and trans people can access knowledge and community. There have been many positive campaigns recently in the face of negative events. Movements like #blacklivesmatter #metoo #lwiththet #nomorewhiteignorance and #notadebate have changed the way in which we discuss certain subjects. Sadly, it’s also provided tools to attack, spread misinformation and defame trans women. “We see again and again that the short form of social media is a dangerous and poor medium to have such a conversation.”
Frankland also sits at odds with dated concepts like ‘passing’, as it connotes an idea of being right or wrong. “I prefer using the terminology ‘read as’ as it puts the responsibility on the viewer. For example – if I fail to ‘pass’ as a woman in your eyes the inference is that I have failed. Whereas if you fail to “read me” as a woman, then that is because of the limitations on your understanding of what a woman may look like, and not because I have done anything wrong.” She says we encounter problems when a trans person is perceived to be pretending to be something they are not. This can still result in violence, so sadly ‘passing’ will be important to certain people when the alternative may result in grave danger. Social attitudes need to change, not how people dress.
There’s an increasing need for art made by people with marginalised identities. Too often people are forced into justifying themselves or defending stances using structures designed to be systemically unbalanced and unfair. The prison industrial complex, legal structures, the mainstream media – all are controlled by people in positions of traditional power. “Art is a place where we can make the rules and express ourselves freely and on our terms. There is a renaissance occurring, especially in work made by trans artists – we don’t fully know what that will look like as we begin to see larger collaborations… but we will find out soon.”
Emma Frankland’s Hearty comes to Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre on Tues 9 July as part of the Trans Pride season. ‘None of Us is Yet a Robot, Five Performances on Gender Identity and the Politics of Transition’ is available now vis Oberon Books.
Featured image by Maurizio Martorana